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Character and the Modern City: George Gissing's Urban Negotiations Arlene Young University of Manitoba FOR THE PAST DECADE and more, the emphasis in critical analysis of the nineteenth-century city has been on observation of various kinds, on observing the individual within the cityscape as spectacle or as spectator, or as consumer.1 The city has also been interpreted as the stage or the venue in which individuals or groups performed and consequently defined new roles within what Judith Walkowitz termed "a redefined public domain."2 Accordingly the city is, for example, one of the major venues in which middle-class women in Britain assert, demand and forge their independence in the 1880s and 1890s. But the nineteenth-century city is a complex entity that provides a larger sensory and experiential potential than these critical models allow for. In his analysis of sound as a cultural phenomenon in the nineteenth century , John Picker observes that " [c] hanging productions and conceptions of noise have tended to be overlooked or, more precisely, underheard in standard social and literary histories."3 The larger experience can perhaps be better understood—better felt, seen, and heard—by shifting the emphasis from the observation of or by the individual within the city to the interaction of the individual with the city. The city may be the locus of "the fleeting, ephemeral, impersonal... encounters" that characterize modern urban life,4 but there is one encounter that is neither fleeting nor ephemeral, although it may well be fragmented: the individual's relationship to the city. To be an urban dweller requires an ongoing accommodation to the ephemeral life and to the demands and opportunities it presents, an accommodation to the nineteenth-century version of "future shock." Living in the city, with the city, constantly tests the urban dweller's ingenuity, intelligence , and adaptability. It is accordingly not the aim here to revisit the ways in which people are or can be reconstructed as urban spectators , as social investigators, as disruptive forces, or as other kinds of 49 ELT 49 : 1 2006 social actors. Rather, this article examines how Gissing uses all these roles and possibilities to do more than illustrate, examine or construct what the possibilities were, to do more than illuminate the reality of the urban world. Gissing uses them more provocatively as mechanisms to illuminate character.5 In the three novels considered here—The Odd Women, In the Year of Jubilee, and Eve's Ransom, published in close succession from 1893 to 1895—the city is more than just a setting for a story; it is in a sense an active entity from which characters cannot and do not hold themselves aloof but with which they interact. The city—be it London, Paris, or Birmingham—becomes an integral part of the story and of the characterization of the participants in that story. Attitudes towards the city and the extent to which individuals can successfully negotiate urban life and landscapes provide the reader with important insights into their personalities and capacities. The confidence with which Hilliard, Everard Barfoot, Rhoda Nunn and Nancy Lord move about the city, for example, is an indicator of their basic intelligence or sophistication. The tentativeness or awkwardness of characters like Virginia Madden or Edmund Widdowson in public venues exposes their personal limitations . Of these characters, the one most at ease in the urban environment is Everard Barfoot. Not only does he move around London with absolute confidence, but he also travels in foreign cities with apparent aplomb. When he first appears in The Odd Women, he has just returned from working in Japan, having "loitered a little in Egypt and Turkey" on the way home.6 When he later holidays on the continent, his letters from Marseilles, Parma, and Ostend document his familiarity with these cities and his self-possession in foreign cultures. He lingers at "a little marble table outside a café" on a fashionable street in Marseilles; he has a flirtatious encounter with a pretty girl selling violets in the streets of Parma.7 Barfoot's confidence is, of course, partly the effect of his middle-class identity. Edmund Widdowson, whose class placement is less secure despite his comfortable...


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pp. 49-62
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